The time has come to read old books

Each fall, when I begin my survey of church history, I take the time to read and discuss C.S. Lewis’ now famous introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Lewis is fascinated by this classic treatment of the incarnation from one of the champions of fourth century Christian theology. As he navigates through the Greek text, Lewis recognizes immediately that it is nothing short of a “masterpiece.”[1] Only a cold, hard heart would not sing when, in the second book, Athanasius brings his argument into focus, proclaiming:

Even so it is with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.[2]

The Word of the Father, through whom all things were made, has condescended and entered our world to become like us. He thusly thwarted the devil’s schemes, overturned death, and leads the way to true life. What Lewis finds in Athanasius’ work is a glimpse into what he calls “mere Christianity” that comprises the “great mass of common assumptions” shared from one Christian generation to the next.[3]

Lewis is certainly not the first evangelical to advocate for the value of engaging early Christian thought. Many, many Protestants arising from the various streams of the post-Reformation world often returned to the fountainhead of the fathers to confirm their own theological perspectives.

But the problem in the modern period, as Lewis goes on to say, is that more often than not, the great works of Christian past are set aside in preference for more contemporary books. In the modern world, what is newest is best. Why settle for version 1.0, when 2.0 is already out?

Lewis describes this kind of modern presentism, or chronological snobbery, saying, “There is strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.”[4] A few lines later, he adds that this “mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”[5]

In Lewis’ diagnosis, the modern anxiety of ancient books “springs from humility” because the contemporary Christian thinks himself or herself woefully inadequate to grapple with the intellectual giants of our theological heritage.[6] I have no doubt that this is true, at least in part. But I fear there are other, less virtuous and more pragmatic reasons for this kind anti-ad fontes that privileges the modern over the ancient.

But whatever the reason, Lewis rightly offers the antidote in a clarion call for Christians to pick up and “read the old [books].”[7] A new book, in Lewis’ thinking, is potentially even more dangerous and more deceptive than an ancient one. He argues that those who have no acquaintance with classic Christian thought have no grid (or rule of faith) through which to filter the errors of contemporary books. He writes:

A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.[8]

Lewis is right. It would take little effort to list a horde of modern books that have captured the hearts and minds of contemporary Christians and directed them off the straight and narrow path.

Lewis makes the poignant observation that the modern Christian has a particular vantage point, and our perspective is “especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes.”[9] The reality is, as Lewis contends, where old books are true, they will help confirm for us the very convictions we already held or even correct some of the blind spots in our own theological reasoning. Where they are false, they will warn us from falling for the same errors and help us steer clear of pitfalls as we navigate the Christian life. Lewis even rounds out his argument with the practical advice to “never … allow yourself another new one [book] till you have read an old one in between.”[10]

The early church was, of course, in no way infallible, as any good student of patristics will be quick to point out. They certainly made their fair share of mistakes. But more often than not, as Lewis recognizes, they did not make the same mistakes.[11] Many recent studies of the evangelical ressourcement of the early church are right to fear any glossing over of the egregious errors of our ancient forbearers.[12] Recovering the theology and exegesis of the early church is not an exercise is idolizing them, but learning from them.

In recent years, it is easy to see how Lewis’ apology for studying early Christian theology participates in a larger movement within contemporary Evangelicalism to recover the theology of the early church. Thomas Oden, who, in many ways, advocated for and accelerated this renaissance, writes, “The sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching. It is a moment of joy, of beholding anew what had been nearly forgotten, of hugging a lost child.”[13] A litany of recent evangelical publications evidence Oden’s assessment.[14]

Within this context, Southwestern Seminary is pleased to announce a new center dedicated to the study of the ancient church called the Southwestern Center for Early Christian Studies. The seminary, in fact, has a long track record of research and publications in early Christianity, but now it meets with a heightened focus and attention. A new website, special lectures, patristic reading groups, regular graduate and postgraduate seminars, and a group of faculty and students dedicated to researching the early church will all be features of this new initiative.

I have the privilege of directing this center, but I share this venture with a host of faculty who contribute a wide range of expertise in early Christianity. Anyone interested in studying the early church will find at Southwestern a vibrant academic community interested in recovering what is best from the voices of the past and serious about engaging the fathers for the sake of the church and proclamation of the Gospel.

We are excited about this new initiative and the prospects it holds for future research and teaching at the seminary. For any prospective students or researchers in early Christianity, I encourage you to check out our website and subscribe for regular updates.

Most of all, through the work of the center, we will strive to read more old books and, in the words of Lewis, “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”[15]

[1]C.S. Lewis, “Preface,” in St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, On the Incarnation: Greek original and English Translation, 11-17 (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 16.
[2]Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 2.9.
[3]C.S. Lewis, “Preface,” 12, 13.
[4]Ibid., 11.
[7]Ibid., 12.
[11]Ibid., 13.
[12]See, for example, Paul Hartog, “The Complexity and Variety of Contemporary Church—Early Church Engagements,” in The Contemporary Church and the Early Church: Case Studies in Ressourcement (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2010), 1.
[13]Thomas Oden, After Modernity—What?: Agenda for Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 14.
[14]See for example: D.H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005); Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman (eds.), Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP, 2008); and George Kalantzis and Andrew Tooley (eds.) Evangelicals and the Early Church: Recovery, Reform, Renewal (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).
[15]C.S. Lewis, “Preface,” 13.